“All hearts in love use their own tongues” (Claudio): love speaks in different “tongues”
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, love speaks in many different tongues as the various triangular relationships fall in and out of love. Whether masked or unmasked, love seems to bring out a range of conflicting emotions as individuals seek to expose and conceal their true feelings. As the action unfolds, Shakespeare suggests that wherever there is love, there is suspicion and double-dealing. Where there is love, there is rivalry, jealousy and dishonour. And where there is love there is often the need to tread sensitively, hence the mask which provides a welcome but often deceptive shield.
Masks and unmasked
Shakespeare typically uses the concept of the mask to symbolise the tendency of the protagonists to hide their true feelings and intentions. During the masked ball in Scene 1, Act II, the various guests don masks to both reveal and conceal their feelings; masked, some guests appear more honest than those who are truly themselves.
In the stage directions, Shakespeare refers to the fact that Don Pedro, Claudio, Benedick, Balthasar, Margaret and Ursula will be masked. Many of these characters wish to declare their love; typically the Elizabethans would feel less inhibited and would talk more freely with a mask. Shakespeare also suggests that one must be delicate when declaring love; it is a sensitive issue and individuals can be harmed or offended. As Ursula later asks “can virtue hide itself”, to suggest that even a mask cannot conceal one’s good feelings.
With the protection of the mask, Balthasar declares his love for Margaret, “well I would you did like me”. Margaret wittily professes that it would be better for his sake if he did not , “for I have many ill qualities” such as, ironically, the fact that she says her prayers “aloud”.
Likewise, Beatrice and Benedick speak in humorous, witty banter in order to mask their true affections and protect themselves from rejection. Their “skirmish of wits” shows love banter to be a constant war of feelings; love is competitive, entertaining, extravagant and contradictory. Above all, love makes people vulnerable. As Leonato observes, “there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her” which alludes to the way both mask their feelings for one another with bitter insults.
Upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro discussing Beatrice’s desire for him, Benedick vows to be “horribly in love with her,” and seeks to trump her in love and courtship (II.iii.207). During the masked ball, Benedick grossly exaggerates how Beatrice has misused him, bidding his friends to send him to the farthest corners of the earth rather than let him spend one more minute with his enemy: “Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on. I will fetch you a toothpicker from the furthest inch of Asia . . . do you any embassage to the pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy” (II.i.229–235).
Accordingly, the theme of love is best revealed, according to Shakespeare, when the victims are aware and unaware. “Lady Beatrice should know me and not know me”, says Benedick.
“Lady Beatrice should know me and not know me”: masks and unmasked
Don Pedro plots to bring Benedick and Beatrice together; he knows that “she were an excellent wife for Benedick”, and he becomes a go-between for two reluctant lovers, but the plot is complicated because of the lovers’ sensitive emotions, prior experiences and pride. Both profess that they do not want to get married for personal reasons. Neither want to expose themselves to harm or ridicule.
Benedick and Beatrice converse with their masks on; they both sense each other’s identity but pretend not to know, which becomes a convenient way of revealing their feelings anonymously. Both Benedick and Beatrice have difficulty revealing their love: they both hide under a protective veil scared that the other will mock or scorn them.
Conveniently, Beatrice seeks to remove herself from feelings of love when she tells him, “he is the prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders”. (II.1.125)
- Later, Benedick becomes offended by Beatrice’s comments and says that words wound him. Don Pedro tells him that Beatrice feels wronged, but Benedick is horrified because he is the one to be offended.
- Evidently, Beatrice knows his identity, but Benedick thinks that she is unaware of who he is.”She told me not thinking I had been myself, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me”. She speaks poniards and every word stabs.” (2;1;225) He overreacts strongly; his language is exaggerated and his examples very dramatic and hyperbolic. “You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel.” (The goddess of discord). Benedick overreacts because he is scared of falling in love and getting hurt.
- Benedick realises that Beatrice criticises him in her witty way, because he has been so fixed against marriage. “I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage, but doth not the appetite alter”.
- Beatrice reveals that she has already been offended previously by Benedick and is protecting herself by the wall of wit: “marry, once before he won it of me with false dice. Therefore your grace may well say I have lost it”.
Appearances can be deceiving especially in matters of love
Leonato states that by all appearances Beatrice appears not to like Benedick, “whom she hath in all outward behaviours seemed every to abhor”. But he also realises that counterfeit and the reality may be carbon copies: “There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it.” He believes Beatrice torments herself because she does not want to make her love known to Benedick: she swears she never will : “Hath she made her affection known?”
Likewise, Don Pedro recognises that she “doth but counterfeit” precisely because she is vulnerable and fears Benedick’s reaction. He notes her reason is perhaps to appear “invincible against all assaults of affection”, but this leads to a stalemate. Claudio also recognises Beatrice’s dilemma: “She says she will die if he love her not, and she will die ere she make her love known”. Another hindrance is the fact that, according to Don Pedro, Benedick does not like romantic and sentimental emotions: “If she should make tender of her love ‘tis very possible he’ll scorn it, for the man, as you know all, hath a contemptible spirit”.
If “beauty is a witch, Against whose charms faith melteth into blood,” can we trust appearances?
Contrastingly, Hero’s love appears simple, pure and loyal. Her steadfastness eventually answers Ursula’s question, “can virtue hide itself”. In Hero’s case, virtue triumphs. But the suspicion in which she is cast proves Beatrice’s assumption that one should be wary of those in love.
That Claudio proves to be easily led, quickly suspicious, and doubtful, shows the fragility of love and the vulnerability of the lover. Possibly his first true love, he instinctively loves Hero but is susceptible to Don John’s evil influence, and he soon becomes anxious and paranoid. At first, when Claudio labours under the suspicion that Don Pedro has trumped his love, Beatrice notices his mixed emotions and jealous complexion: “The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well, but civil count, civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion”.
Once again, the deceptive power of love, “his conceit is false”, is apparent as Don Pedro confesses to Claudio that “I have wooed in thy name and fair Hero is won”. Claudio professes his joy: “silence is the perfectest herald of joy”. However, such “false” conceit proves to be just a precursor, as Claudio soon becomes “enraged” after seeing the “amiable encounter” between Margaret as Lady Hero and Borachio. Owing to his lack of faith, Claudio harms Hero and is only saved because of the Friar’s good intentions and intervention. He realises how close he was to losing his precious jewel. (In this regard, he is more fortunate than the “black moor” Othello, who laments the fact that “like the base Indian” he “threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe”. )
The unmasked men: Don John and Claudio: both know and don’t reveal.
Contrastingly, Don John and Borachio are unmasked. One reason is because they are literally deceptive and evil; they deliberately scheme and undermine the love relationships. Prior to the conversation, Borachio warns Don John about the identity of Claudio; he recognises him “by his bearing”. But Don John deliberately continues with the deception
- The unmasked Don John warns the masked Claudia to be careful of Hero. Claudio has the mask on and believes that he deceives him when he confirms his identity as Benedick; Don John addresses him as Signor Benedick in order to dissuade him from his love for Hero. “I pray you dissuade him from her. She is no equal for his birth.”
- Hearing the news, Claudio using a double identity, believes that he has been entrusted with important information. “Thus answer I in name of Benedick; But hear these ill news with the ears of Claudio”. He does not seem to realise that Don John suspected his identity.
Upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro discussing Beatrice’s desire for him, Benedick vows to be “horribly in love with her,” in effect continuing the competition by outdoing her in love and courtship (II.iii.207). He grossly exaggerates how Beatrice has misused him, bidding his friends to send him to the farthest corners of the earth rather than let him spend one more minute with his enemy: “Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on. I will fetch you a toothpicker from the furthest inch of Asia . . . do you any embassage to the pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy” (II.i.229–235).
“Noting”, nothing and eavesdropping
In Shakespeare’s time the ‘nothing’ of the title would have been pronounced “noting”. This involves the actions of observing, listening, writing or noting.
What is plotting: (secret conversations, withholding information, spying on others)
Don John and Borachio: he masterminds the plan to help Don John achieve his evil purposes and convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero has a secret lover. (Earlier, Don John pretends t mistake the disguised Claudio for Benedick and tells him that Don Pedro is courting Hero.)
This deceptive plot relates to the motif of eavesdropping or “noting”. Shakespeare uses this motif to complicate the plot and to draw attention to the way plotting is used to create barriers between people and sew suspicion and distrust. For example, Borachio plans to have a secret conversation with Hero at night time. Unknowingly, Hero is played by Margaret who professes her love for an unknown lover and enables Don John to present her as “every man’s Hero”. Critical to the success of his evil scheme is the fact that Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John must hide and listen to the conversation. “quotes” Shakespeare relies on dramatic irony because the audience is aware of the evil plan, of which the victims are unaware. The aim is to humiliate Hero and to isolate her from Claudio, thus tarnishing the reputation of Don Pedro as well. As Shakespeare also points out, where there is love there is double-dealing; there is also suspicion, paranoia, jealousy and rivalry. It shows the lengths to which the evil “bastard” Don John goes because during this time, a woman’s honour is critical to her wellbeing and her future .This plan could completely destroy her and symbolically kill the woman.
Coincidentally, after the collapse of the plan to bring Hero and Claudio together, Shakespeare critically introduces the love poetry to subtly convince Benedick to change his mind. The prince and Claudio use verse and then prose, to further their plotting. Significantly Balthasar sings, “sign no more, ladies, sigh no more, men were deceivers ever”. As Claudio says, “bait the hook well. The fish will bite”. Benedick is indeed encouraged to change his mind. “when I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married”. When Beatrice comes “against (her) will” to call him to dinner, he slips into the role of lover and realises that their wit also conceals a double meaning of love. He uncovers the double meaning in her phrase, “I took no more pains for those thanks that you took pains to thank me” and realise that he should sympathise with her. “If I do not love her I am a Jew”.
Benedick’s response and change
Benedick changes his attitude about marriage and Beatrice.
- He realises certain things about himself and is honest about his faults.
- Benedick believes that they are speaking the truth about Beatrice’s real affection. But still, h worries about committing himself : “I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud.” He realises that she often criticises him in her witty way, because he has been so fixed against marriage. “I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage, but doth not the appetite alter”.
- “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”
Another purpose of the eavesdropping is (noting/ deception) is to vent their resentment, jealousy, anger and frustration. Don John is malevolent, and he and Borachio know that the victims will need proof. He also knows that they can be easily fooled. Borachio depends upon his good relationship with Margaret, the “waiting gentlewoman to Hero”. (He says that he can “at any unseasonable instant of the night appoint her to look out at her lady’s chamber window”)
Don John’s plot to undo Claudio also hinges on noting: in order for Claudio to believe that Hero is unchaste and unfaithful, Claudio must be brought to her window to witness, or note, Margaret (whom he takes to be Hero) who says farewell to Borachio in the semi-darkness.
Scene 2, Act 2: Borachio hatches the scheme to discredit Hero and poison her reputation. He knows that Claudio and Don Pedro will not believe anything “without trial”. He states, “offer them instances, which shall bear no less likelihood than to see me at her chamber window, hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio. And bring them to see this the very night before the intended wedding … “there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero’s disloyalty and jealousy shall be called assurance, and all the preparation overthrown”.
Borachio earns 1000 ducats. He is pleased to be able to exploit Don John, a rich villain, and blackmail him for a decent sum of money. He knows that Don John’s anger and jealousy makes him vulnerable. He later tells Conrad: “For when rich villains have need of poor ones, poor ones may make what price they will.”
Shakespeare shows that despite fashionable appearances, the thief is still a thief. Borachio says, “thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet or a hat or a cloak is nothing to a man… I may as well say, the fool’s the fool.” But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is.”
The watchman overhear Borachio tell Conrad his scheme to fool Claudio. He boasts of his performance in the scheme that deceived Claudio and Don Pedro.
- He tells Conrad, “but know that I have tonight wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero’s gentlewoman, by the name of Hero. She leans me out at her mistress’ chamber, bids me a thousand times good night. .. I should first tell thee how the prince, Claudio, and my master, planted and placed and possessed by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter.”
- Borachio’s attributes his success to the “dark night” and “his villainy” which “did deceive them” and which “did confirm any slander that Don John had made”.
- Accordingly, Claudio becomes “enraged”; he “swore he would meet her as he was appointed next morning… and “shame her with what he saw o’ernight” (Act 3, Scene 3)
- Dogberry and Verges discover and arrest Don John because they overhear talk of the Margaret–Borachio staging.
- They manage to capture Don John and bring him to Leonato, after having had the sexton (a church official) “note” the occurrences of the evening in writing. In the end, noting, in the sense of writing, unites Beatrice and Benedick for good: Hero and Claudio reveal love sonnets written by Beatrice and Benedick, textual evidence that notes and proves their love for one another.
- (Friar’s speech: we don’t often value what we have until it is too late…) (Act 4, Scene 1 – intervenes to protect Hero’s honour…)